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My Experience In An M.P. Village Revealed The True Extent Of Sexism In Our Society

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India fellow logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of a campaign by The India Fellow program on Youth Ki Awaaz. India Fellows spend 13 months working at the grassroots level to bring about real on-ground change. They are also mentored to be socially conscious leaders and contribute to the development of the country. Apply here to be a part of the change.

By Swati Saxena:

In 2016, I decided to apply to the India Fellow programme and got through. As part of the fellowship, I was placed with an organisation named Chaitanya in Madhya Pradesh, which works to empower women by bringing about financial inclusion through self-help groups. The work took me deep into rural Madhya Pradesh, requiring me to interact with and encourage local women to begin saving a little money every month, that they can use on rainy days. It was one such day in a village in South Madhya Pradesh, while my colleague and I were passing through the half-broken muddy roads on a bike, that something strange happened.

“Ladki, ladki (It’s a girl!)” an excited four-year-old screamed, “Wo dekh, scooter pe ladki (Look, there, on the scooter!),” looking back and forth at his friends and me, in absolute amazement. I found his surprise strangely disturbing. We knew that the gender gap in rural Madhya Pradesh was far wider than in the urban setups that we came from. We had in fact, experienced much reluctance in the behaviour of women in last few days, when it came to convincing them to begin saving. Not just that; they were even reluctant to speak, to get out of their homes, to try anything new or to take the ghoonghat off their heads. But something about this boy’s raw surprise struck me as strange in an outlandish way.

Kids Swati and her colleague encounter on their way to field areas regularly, rural Madhya Pradesh.

I knew I couldn’t place the blame for the child’s attitude on him, or even his parents. After all, they wouldn’t have had the time to tell him that women don’t drive scooters, right? But I couldn’t help but wonder what shaped his attitude. Did he overhear men making fun of women doing it? Did he observe practices where women weren’t allowed to do certain things? Or was it just that he hadn’t seen something like this earlier, and it was just something new?

Another time, my colleague and I were talking to a group of women at one of the local women’s home, about the benefits of regular savings and how it could help them financially as well as socially. Suddenly, a 13-year-old boy barged in, looked sternly towards one of the women and said, “Koi zarurat nahi hai ye sab karne ki! (There’s no need to do any of this!)”. And the mother’s reaction was only to smile, and look down as if affirming.

It took me almost half a minute to try to make sense of what just happened. Turns out he was her son who had been eavesdropping all this while. Evidently, he was in the habit of making decisions for his mother, and she didn’t really have a say in anything. At that point, I had no option but to leave them to it. But numerous such instances later, I have realised that there is a need to come up with a solution for these things, and soon.

A woman in one of the many villages in Harda, M.P. where Swati lives and works as a fellow.

The main obstacle with respect to this is to figure out who’s really responsible for these acts of sexism. Do we blame the children, the family or the entire community? After all, the issues aren’t limited to rural India, we’ve all seen such things in urban cities as well. The logical conclusion, then, is that the fault lies in the system in entirety and requires immediate intervention.

That is not to say that nothing has been done at all. There have been several movies, books and other literature published to educate people about this. However, movies like ‘Pink’ and ‘Parched’ usually talk only to those who are already conscious, and they (we) in turn need to communicate to the ones (millions) who are still ignorant.

Our education system has failed us as well. For example, did you know gender and sex are not the same? I didn’t, until last week, when we had a session on gender equity in my organisation and were taught the difference.

It is only with bridging such gaps in knowledge that we can take larger strides towards changing attitudes. And I have come to realise that that is what my fellowship is about. Fellowships in India are building a community of socially conscious individuals who are directly engaging with these issues and attempting to tackle them at the source. Proof? After facing what I did, I have decided to enrol for an online emotional intelligence course, so I know how best to handle such situations in the future.

After all, it’s only through direct intervention that we can hope to bring the change we wish to see in society, right?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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